Saturday, December 24, 2011

These are a few of my ...

I first encountered Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, visionary, mystic --- and prolific author, during the early 1970s through his books while visiting a friend, cooling her heels between assignments at the then-mother house of the Sisters of Humility of Mary in Ottumwa.

After Mass in the chapel (now the library and gallery of Indian Hills Community College), we walked back to the mother house entrance through the library of the noviciate, then being disassembled. Sister Jeanette, in typical Sister Jeanette fashion, began gathering books off the shelves and filling my arms with them. Among them were a few of Merton's.

Some years later, I came across Merton's poem, "Epiphany Carol," and have read it and used it in a variety of ways at Christmas since. Here it is again:

Flocks feed by darkness with a noise of whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
And lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.

God's glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom's born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay
Beside the wise men's golden jars.

Although it's hard to choose, my favorite sung carol of the season (this year at least, although it's consistently right up there) is the exquiste "In the Bleak Midwinter," poet Christine Rossetti's ca. 1872 imagining of the Nativity in a northern climate with a ca. 1906 musical setting by Gustav Holst. (The third stanza of the poem is not as a rule included in the carol.)

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air -
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him -
Give my heart.

As often is the case, everyone from theologian to farmer to skeptic has at time quibbled with the literal accuracy of these words and their arrangement, but somehow both carols manage to move directly to the heart of the matter. And that, after all, is the point of both music and poetry, which God does not merely inspire, but often is.

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